Vienna, October 30 – Even as the Russian parliament considers building multi-lane toll roads, Russian officials acknowledge that the poor quality of the country’s existing highways is reducing the country’s GDP by there percent a year and that one out of every three Russian villages is not yet linked to the outside world by roads of any kind.
On Friday, the Federation Council approved a measure allowing for the introduction of toll roads, a measure that its supporters say will reduce the impact of the country’s roads on its economy and lead to the construction of more highways thus tying Russia together (http://www.vz.ru/society/2007/10/27/120529.html).
Russia has only 899,000 kilometers of roads, about half of what senators said the country needs, and a large percentage of these are either unpaved or in such poor condition as to be impassable much of the time or a drag on the movement of goods and people around the country.
In many parts of the Russian Federation, there are no roads paved or unpaved at all. And where roads do exist, they are often seasonal – a euphemism for “extremely bad” – or controlled by corporations or government agencies that routinely prohibit the public from using them.
These shortcomings in the highway system in turn mean that the average speed of travel over them is significantly lower than it might otherwise be, a difference that adds to the cost of moving goods and people around and that alternatively promotes local inefficient regional autarkies or serious shortages.
Because of the way in which Russia’s highway funds have been distributed since Soviet times, however, Moscow has provided far more money to repair and then repair again existing roads rather than build new ones either to new places or with more lanes between major cities.
The bill the Federation Council has approved is intended to break out of what has been a vicious circle for many Russian localities and industries. But not surprisingly, beneath promises to build huge new projects like a ten-lane highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of the features of the old system have been retained.
To give but one example: the senators amended the measure so that Russian agencies cannot open a toll roads until sometime after 2010 and so that there must always be an alternative “free” road available so that the toll system will not impose undue hardships on low-income groups.
The first restriction means that the government may not raise the money from tolls that it says it wants to spend on highway construction, thus limiting the ability of the authorities to move away from the existing and for construction firms highly profitable system.
And the requirement that there be an alternative “free” route rather than subsidies of some kind for less well-off drivers almost certainly means that neither the new toll roads nor the rebuilt alternatives will be as good as either might be alone – and as a result, commerce is unlikely to pick up speed in the ways officials hope.
Meanwhile, concerning another part of Russia’s transportation system, officials in Moscow and in the North Caucasus are debating whether and how to revive in the 21st century a Stalin-era plan to build a canal between the Caspian and the Black Sea (http://chernovik.net/article.php?pid=247&aid=4738).
In 1936, stimulated by the Soviet dictator’s preference for gigantist projects, Moscow planners came up with a plan to build such a canal, but both technical and financial difficulties and the impact of World War II put this project on hold, and most people had assumed that it had been cancelled.
Over the last five or six years, however, officials both at the center and in the regions through which such a canal might pass have revived the idea. While it faces stiff opposition on ecological grounds, regional officials whose areas would benefit are pushing hard.to start digging.
But there is a major fight over what route it should take with each of two plans drawing support from the regions through which it might pass. The first would extend from the Caspian, along the Kuma River and thence to the Azov Sea, while th second would go through the Terek and Kuban regions and then on to the Azov Sea.
And below that overarching debate, officials who back one or the other of these plans also hope to introduce some modifications that would benefit their region in particular. Thus, the Kalmyk authorities want the canal to start at a different port on the Caspian than do officials in neighboring areas.
Advocates for the cancal say that building either would cost no more than four to five billion rubles (180 million US dollars), almost certainly a lowball figure, and that construction would take only four to six years, again almost certainly less than is likely especially if funding becomes a problem.
But the possibility of moving goods and especially oil and gas by barge this way means that the return on such an investment could in principle be large, and as a result, this debate is likely to heat up in the coming months, even if not one spade of earth is turned or one barge ever floated.